Writers Roundtable - Part 1
Tuesday, 13th January 2009 at 9:53 am
With gamers and specialist press putting more emphasis on stories in games, it’s now the norm to work with a writer during the development process. We picked five of the UK’s top games writers to talk about where we’ve come, and how far we still have to go…
MEET THE PANEL
A former games journalist who started scriptwriting and narrative design six years ago, and has recently worked on Heavenly Sword, Overlord and Mirror’s Edge.
One-third of the Mustard Corporation, which has worked on around 30 titles, including the Driver series, Broken Sword, and recent DS game Unsolved Crimes.
A freelance scriptwriter at Sidelines, with a background in television and film. Worked on Just Cause 2 and cut-scene dialogue for the cancelled Eight Days.
Writer-for-hire who has previously written for novels, TV and radio. Games-wise, he wrote Battlestar Galactica, and has most recently been involved with Deus Ex 3.
A games writer for around three years, his work has largely been focused on indie titles – most predominantly with Frictional Games on the Penumbra series.
Do you think that gamers have come around to the idea of stories in games recently?
Rhianna Pratchett: I don’t think it’s gamers – players have always been happy to have stories in games, because it drives gameplay, it gives motivation and meaning to what they’re doing. It’s been the developers and publishers that have come around to having a better story to hold the game together, and hiring a professional writer to do that.
Maurice Suckling: I’d basically agree, with some caveats. It depends on the developer, and the kind of game as well, but that attitude seems more Western – in Japan there’s never been any aversion to story.
Justin Villiers: I think it’s taking some time for developers to catch up and realise how early on it’s necessary to be thinking about story rather than an afterthought.
MS: Yeah, and the playing field is levelling technologically – in broad terms, everybody’s got a good engine, so the differential becomes stories and that motivation in gameplay.
Jim Swallow: I think the point about story coming in early is an important one. The biggest problem that we have is when you’ve delivered a project that’s nearly finished, and they suddenly realise they need a story right at the last minute. Developers are, thankfully, wising up to the idea that embedding a writer from day one is a much better idea for everyone.
Are you still finding yourself asked to work on last-minute projects?
JS: Oh, yeah. I’ve worked on three projects this year – on one of them I was brought in before a single bit of code had been written, and it was great to have that blank slate to start from.
With Deus Ex 3, I was brought on when the storyline had already been developed, but there was a still a lot of room to manouver. But there was a project at the beginning of the year where it was practically finished, and they’d already written a script that needed a lot of work.
MS: Asking you to bolt the door when there’s not even a smell of the horse left behind is by far and away the more usual scenario. Occasionally you get clients that bring you in at the beginning, but you don’t necessarily have to stay on the whole time – you might come in and do a bit for a few days and then not speak to them for six months. If you only come in at the beginning and steer the rudder a little bit, the whole process is going to work out much better for everyone.
RP: There’s a tendency to put writers in boxes – I think far more developers are aware of the need for writers but they don’t really know how to integrate them into the team, and it’s like, ‘Orders go in the box, and words come out of it. The writer will not be integrated into the team for fear of affecting their work.’ That’s really how it happens – I’ve been on projects where I haven’t seen the game! So it’s a good thing that developers are realising the need for stories; it’s a good thing that they’re realising that you need professionals to do it – but they don’t really know how to use them, how to integrate them with a team.
MS: I think that’s because of the misconception that all writers do is dialogue. If you believe that stories are carried in dialogue, you allow writers to come in and do their thing, but not something that affects the game more. But once you accept that stories are carried in structure, you can bring people in in a deeper, more multi-dimensional way that allows things to develop. If you get a writer in to just do dialogue, it’s using about two per cent of what it is that we do.
JV: I think what holds it back is that there’s a hierarchy within most development companies, and in a lot of situations there’ll a producer or a lead animator and the game is almost like their baby, so they want to continue with that all the way to the end – but then they get to the dialogue, and they think ‘let’s get a writer to do this’, not seeing the writer as someone who can add anything to the story. That’s kind of the reverse of the film industry, where it all starts from the script.
Tom Jubert: I think that’s a real difficulty. If you want to create a decent narrative experience, a lot of the time you’re making demands on the gameplay to tell that story – and at the same time, those working on the gameplay just want the story to support what they’re doing. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the start for all the Penumbra games, but I still have the problem of trying to get the guys doing the level and puzzle design to fit their stuff in with the story and vice versa.
JS: You get a great synergy when you get when you put creative people in a room together. Just being in a room with some of the art guys or level design guys on Deus Ex 3 has made us come up with ideas, just from the fact that you’re all together – and that makes the product better. Compartmentalisation is terrible, because you lose that.
RP: With Overlord I wasn’t brought in right at the beginning, but by just talking to the level designers, animators, cutscene people you can get them enthused about the story. You can’t always be there to protect the story, but you can almost deputise it so that people there care about it, care about how it’s told in their level and what it adds. If you can get them enthused and coming up with their own ideas, that’s something I see as really important.
But if you never meet level designers and you’re just kept in a box, you don’t know if what you’re doing is working properly, or if it’s pissing people off because you don’t know their needs. So integration is the key, and there needs to be a hell of a lot more communication on both sides. Now, on Overlord 2, I almost have a mini-team who are almost like guardians of the story, and can know it when I’m not around on a day-to-day basis.
It’s great that there’s narrative designers in-house at some companies now, but there’s not enough. A lot of what I do is narrative design, and a lot of what I do is – as Maurice said – like building the house.
There’s been a rise in the number of studios employing narrative designers, certainly in the US, but it’s not caught on quite as much here. The definition tends to change from person to person, so – as people who do some narrative design – how would you define it, and how do you think it could improve the process?
JS: A narrative designer brings a larger set of tools to the job, so it’s not just ‘here’s a script for the barks,’ it’s more a question of saying ‘I can help you design back stories’; the invisible things that Rhianna was just talking about. You can scope them out, and then the artists can take that out and construct an informed design for the character. The narrative designer can bring that sort of texture to the game, and really raise the reality of it I guess.
JV: Really, storytelling is structure – it’s just as important as characters or dialogue. I think the narrative designer is aware of taking the player on a journey – that’s an important aspect. It’s the responsibility for them to think of the journey, and what the player will be feeling at certain points.
MS: For me, a narrative designer ascribes the space in which the story will be told, and the way in which it will be delivered, and the nature of the relationship between that story and the rest of the game. It’s not necessarily what a screenplay writer would do.
I think you’re right in that each person has their own definition – for me, the back story stuff wouldn’t necessarily be something a narrative designer did. I mean, the difference between story and plot is that plot is the way the story is manifested. In a novel, maybe you use flashbacks or flashforwards, various other narrative voice techniques. In games, the biggest thing that you do is work out the sort of space you’re going to play in – and that’s the critical thing, I think.
Do you think the narrative designers can act as a bridge between an external writer and the development team?
RP: Yeah. Narrative designers should be involved with, or at least have a tentacle in, all of the different ways that stories can be told through a game. Story can be told through gameplay, like in Psychonauts, or it can be told through the environment – which is really big at the moment. That might, in a way, be completely done by an artist, but a narrative designer or writer can come up with techniques that will help the player take in a story without being told it.
I think that’s a real craft, and there’s so many different ways of doing it in a game that are a lot more complicated than other mediums. It crosses over with other departments. It’s bringing audio, design, artists together. In some ways, I consider myself more of a narrative designer than a writer, because working in games metamorphosises writing into so much more.
JV: I think one of the unique abilities of games is the potential to tell a non-linear story. It allows writers to use their imaginations in different ways, and come up with new ways of telling stories. The narrative designer has a special responsibility to be pushing the boundaries of how to tell a story itself. Hopefully game developers will be looking at using narrative designers more.
MS: As game writers, we don’t just tell stories – it’s really about how we provide the possibility of people telling their own stories. If you’re writing a screenplay, the mantra is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But if you’re working in games, maybe there’s a different hierarchy – maybe it’s do, then show, then tell.
RP: I think Bioshock has been the best example so far in terms of its doing, showing and telling – I don’t think you know right until in the end just how much ‘doing’ is involved – but in terms of environmental storytelling, it dripped from every single room, the positioning of characters, where you found the bodies. For the player that cares about that, you can go around the world seeing little bits and pieces of story everywhere you go. I think that was a really slick way of doing it, and it sold really well, and that’s made people set up and take notice.
JV: It was kind of a benchmark, really, and what it did very cleverly is that it allowed the game to be played by just charging through or, if players wanted to indulge in the story, it was there. It balanced it perfectly, and created many new ways of delivering exposition into a game.
TJ: I’d argue that Half-Life and its sequel did that a lot better. If you look at Bioshock, there’s still a shed-load of text and speech telling the story. In Half-Life especially, there’s no text, very little voice work, and yet people still come away from the game with the sense that they’ve experienced a story, and that’s done entirely through the levels, the settings.
JS: There’s a great bit at the beginning of Half-Life 2 where you see a Vortigaunt – which were incredibly dangerous characters from the first game – and it’s pushing a broom like a janitor. What does that inform you? That the threat here in the sequel is so powerful that it’s reduced biggest threat from the first game into being a janitor. That’s a huge chunk of story exposition dropped in front of you without a word of dialogue. That sort of environmental storytelling is the sort of thing we can only contribute if we’re embedded in the project from the get-go.
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